BCP musical ‘Dogfight’ a beautiful story about ugly intentions

By John Lyle Belden

Don’t let the title fool you: “Dogfight,” the musical at Buck Creek Players though June 17, has nothing to do with dogs, or cruelty to animals – just cruelty to humans.

An early collaboration by the composers of “Dear Evan Hansen” that played off-Broadway in 2012, this musical is based on the 1991 film, “Dogfight,” starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor.

In the early 1960s, young Marines in San Francisco – one day before shipping out to be “advisors” in Vietnam – engage in the Corps tradition of a “dogfight.” Each of the men pays into a pot awarded to the one who brings the ugliest girl to a dance party. Eddie Birdlace (Nathan Wilusz) and his fellow “B’s,” Boland (Levi Hoffman) and Bernstein (Scott Fleshood) search the streets for “dates,” but Eddie has no luck, until he stops at a coffeeshop and hears a girl singing as she plays guitar. Rose (Addison R. Koehler) appears plain and a little plump, so Eddie asks her to the party. Happily naive, she looks forward to her first real date, while Eddie starts to feel his conscience give him second thoughts. Suddenly the other B’s meet up with them, and the “fight” is on – “Sempre Fi, do or die.”

Though I risk ruining the premise of the play, or giving away its subtext, I must note that Koehler is beautiful in every way – her voice, her stage presence, her brave portrayal, the way she shines through even the plainer outfits she wears. More amazing, she’s still in high school (making her close to the age of the character she plays), so her potential is just beginning to show.

Wilusz makes a fine Marine, struggling with being a young gentleman in the hours before reverting to the ways of the warrior. Hoffman and Fleshood are also excellent, in their own rough ways. It must be noted that these men all swear like, well, Marines – BCP advises the show should be considered “R” rated. Also notable is Shelbi Berry in roles including Marcy, a girl who sees the event as a way to cash in; Emily Tritle as stoic Ruth Two Bears; and Onis Dean in various roles throughout.

The story goes deeper than the titular contest, of course, though the theme of cruel judgement based on appearance still resonates today. One clue to how much the world is about to change is in the date this takes place, and with little known about what’s happening in Southeast Asia, the men going there are in their own way as naive as the women they had set out to fool. This is also a sweet love story, as Eddie makes a valiant effort to salvage his budding relationship with Rose. The songs are well-written and well-placed, even if they aren’t hit showtunes.

Another great show directed by D. Scott Robinson, “Dogfight” is worth making your way out to the playhouse at 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74 southeast of Indy). Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

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BCP hosts the original version of ‘Dolly’

By John Lyle Belden

Buck Creek Players presents, “The Matchmaker,” the Thornton Wilder farce that inspired the hit musical, “Hello Dolly” – and it’s easy to see how, as there were several moments in this non-musical comedy that I found myself thinking, “a song would go nice here.”

Set in the 1880s, this satire of society and attitudes of the era has a Yonkers, N.Y., merchant, Horace Vandegelder (C. Leroy Delph), hiring matchmaker Dolly Levi (Gloria Bray) to find him a wife, while denying his daughter Ermengarde (Sami Burr) permission to marry her true love, artist Ambrose Kemper (Manny Casillas). Meanwhile, Horace’s top clerk, Cornelius Hackl (Ben Jones) and his bumbling assistant Barnaby (Evan Vernon), fed up with a lack of respect at their jobs, decide to spend a day in nearby New York City – where, of course, everyone else will end up. The adventure begins at the hat shop of Irene Malloy (Brigette McCleary-Short), who Horace had sought to woo, but Dolly has someone else in mind for the rich man’s bride.

Bray holds the center well as the title character, never holding back on the clever charm and wit. McCleary-Short is also impressive in a character who would feel right at home among the independent women of today’s New York. Otherwise, Wilder apparently had trouble writing for the women, as Ermengarde has few lines, and Irene’s shy assistant Minnie Fay (Katie Thompson) practically none – though she makes up for it with effective physical comedy.

Jones truly shines, making his supporting role feel like a lead, his excellent comic timing and delivery aided by the slapstick skills of Vernon, as they play well off of McCleary-Short and Thompson’s characters.

I must also commend stage first-timer Nickie Cornett for her charming moments as the Cook for Flora Van Huyson (Kassy Cayer, a study in melodrama), Ermengarde’s aunt, at whose home the farcical situations reach their climax.

The play includes the device of various characters, notably Dolly, speaking directly to the audience. It’s hard to say whether that, or a lot of the humor, has aged well. (There was, however, a bit of unexpected amusement by younger audience members, associating Ermengarde’s name with the “Ehrmagerd” internet meme.) The show also features clever stage design by Dan Denniston, with setpieces for a number of locales easily moved in and out of the scene.

One weekend remains of “The Matchmaker” at Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or visit www.BuckCreekPlayers.com.

Take a spin with Buck Creek Players

By John Lyle Belden

Times change in every era. Recent years have washed away most of the video stores and game arcades of the 1980s, and that decade, in turn, tore down some old diversions to make room for the new. That’s where we find “The Rink,” the musical running through Feb. 11 at Buck Creek Players.

On a run-down seaside boardwalk, Antonelli’s Roller Rink – once bustling but now in decay, its pipe organ long silent – is closed and due for demolition. The building contains the residence of owner (and “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer”) Anna Antonelli. But as she moves the last of her possessions out, in comes her daughter, Angel, who had left home over a decade before in order to “find herself.” The reunion becomes tense as Angel discovers not only is her childhood home being destroyed, but also her mother forged her signature to sell it. Is this relationship, like the building, now damaged beyond repair?

Typically, I’d mention the creators of the musical up front; but though they personally loved it, it is not the best work by Broadway legends John Kander and Fred Ebb. And fortunately, book-writer Terrance McNally would go on to write a number of legendary Tony-winning musicals and plays. But in this, overall the script is weak, the songs ranging from mildly catchy to cringe-worthy.

Fortunately, BCP and director D. Scott Robinson elevate the material though brilliant casting. Real-life mother and daughter Georgeanna Tiepen (Anna) and Miranda Nehrig (Angel) also happen to be wildly talented actors and singers. Their natural bond shows through, bringing out the heart of the show. A chorus of men play the crew impatiently waiting to tear the place down, as well as, in flashback, the men in the women’s lives. This includes great peformances by Jake McDuffy as Dino, Angel’s father, and Michael R. Mills as Dino’s father, the original owner of the rink.

Kudos to set designer Aaron B. Bailey for making the stage an authentic-looking piece of the skating rink’s floor – it even gets some use in a fun interlude when the wrecking crew find some skates.

This show does have its merits, and especially if you empathize with the plight of mothers and prodigal daughters, or have your own cherished boardwalk or rollerskating memories, you’ll find yourself liking your time at “The Rink.”

Also, to complete the atmosphere, BCP has started selling popcorn before the show, which you can partake of in the theatre.

Playhouse is at 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

BCP: It’s a wonderful show

By John Lyle Belden

It’s Christmas Eve, 1945, and we’ve gotten in out of the cold to sit in the studio audience at WBFR Radio, New York City. Freddie Fillmore, who is as handsome as he sounds, comes out to greet us commoners, along with fellow stars of the airwaves, Jake Laurents, Sally Applewhite, Lana Sherwood and Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood. Sound-effects expert Art Foley teases us with an earful of a common kitchen utensil, challenging us to guess what that sound will represent on air – none of us can!

Soon they settle in on stage, and present a new holiday story, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

This is the trip to the past delivered by Buck Creek Players, a parallel world where the Frank Capra film is just a rumor, and we get the Christmas legend of George Bailey and Clarence the Angel as a live radio play (adapted by Joe Landry). The cast does work the crowd a little before the show, while stage manager Nicole Droeger, in period costume, helps set things up as a WBFR staffer. There are “APPLAUSE” signs to cue us (though they often weren’t needed) as well as the “ON AIR” light to let us know the show is under way.

Jeff Wilson plays Fillmore, the established star who hosts the event and provides numerous character voices, including complete opposites Mr. Potter and Uncle Billy. Tiffany Wilson is Applewhite, who portrays the major women characters, including George’s wife, Mary. Sami Burr is Sherwood, who does the minor women’s roles. Ben Rockey is Jazzbo, who can’t help providing visual gags when not voicing Clarence, or George’s brother Harry or friend Sam. Christian Condra is up-and-coming star Laurents, tasked with the voice of George himself. And Christopher Brown is Foley, who works with a table of noisemakers a lot like those used in the Golden Age of Radio.

The result is an brilliant rendition of the now-familiar story. If you close your eyes, it’s exactly like the show would have been as a radio drama, or you could even fill in the film visuals with your mind’s eye as only a little was changed, and all major plot points are intact. Of course, if you’re not watching, you don’t get to see the method of Foley’s clever effects, Jazzbo hamming it up, or a bit of shenanigans that happen in the studio, including some sneaking around during intermission.

The cast, under the direction of Cathy Cutshall, are all in fine form. The Wilsons, Burr and Rockey nimbly shift from one distinct character voice to another. Condra delivers an excellent, genuine George Bailey without slipping into a James Stewart impersonation.

It’s worth the trip out to the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74), through Dec. 17.

Also, this being the BCP holiday show, there is the annual cookie sale during intermission. They accept cash, cards or checks, so pick up a bag or tin of fine baked goods and help support local theatre.

Get info and tickets at 317-862-2270, or visit www.BuckCreekPlayers.com.

BCP presents serious drama

By John Lyle Belden

Wendy remembers a video rental place (remember those?) where the clerks kept putting the 1987 Streisand movie “Nuts” on the comedy shelves, and it definitely did not belong there.

While the courtroom drama, the original stage version of which is at Buck Creek Players, does have its moments of legal wit, and a defendant who deflects with “inappropriate humor,” this play is dead serious.

In a courtroom on the grounds of New York’s Bellevue Hospital in the winter of 1979, a hearing will determine if Claudia (played by Jenni White) is competent to stand trial for manslaughter. Her mother and stepfather (Miki Mathioudakis and Tim Latimer) are naturally concerned. Judge Murdoch (Ed Mobley) and prosecutor MacMillan (Dave Hoffman) are prepared for a fairly routine proceeding, with Dr. Roesnthal (Graham Brinklow) declaring the defendant unfit, and the state signing off on it. Officer Harry (Tracy Jones) is just biding time until the next smoke break.

But Claudia doesn’t believe she is “nuts,” and works with attorney Lewinsky (Michael Swinford), whose apparently disorganized manner makes him look out of his depth – until he starts asking some surprisingly probing questions.

White masterfully portrays the easily underestimated Claudia, as she plays into her opponents’ assumptions until the moment she can turn the tables. Still, she’s hardly in control. Her parents represent past pain that she never reconciled, and her stepfather being put on the stand rips those wounds back open.

Mathioudakis and Latimer tackle difficult roles professionally, she a chameleon whose colors shift from cool to hot as events unfold, he the type of person you at first mistrust because he’s rich, but then find he’s far worse than anyone suspects.

Hoffman plays it competent but stiff, while Swinford as the legal wild card is like a lithe, crafty fox. Mobley is great at crusty characters, and is in charge here. Brinklow is a study in confident arrogance. Jones is subtly reassuring, an unlikely friend. Completing the cast, Adrienne Reiswerg ably plays the court recorder, who, at the play’s close, gets in the last word.

The portrayal of mental healthcare in the late 70s seems so long ago, it’s easy to forget that only a few decades have passed, and much of the stigma – of mental illness, of sex work, and of women’s issues – still remains. And it’s further shocking how the nature of the childhood abuse Claudia suffered becomes almost a footnote in this case. There would be more attention paid today, but, honestly, how much?

Yes, “Nuts” is not a comedy, but it’s kinda funny how its issues are still resonant today.

One weekend of performances remain, Friday through Sunday, Oct. 6-8, at Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeast Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.BuckCreekPlayers.com.

BCP’s ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ here to steal your heart

By John Lyle Belden

Is it a “spoiler” if you already know the ending?

The musical “Bonnie & Clyde” – through June 25 at Buck Creek Players – opens with our titular characters dying from a rain of bullets on a Louisiana road in 1934. But this historical fact is not what is important in this show by Ivan Menchell and Don Black with music by Frank Wildhorn of “Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical.” We aren’t given the gore of their story; this play is an exploration of what made a young man and woman from Texas into the Romeo and Juliet of Depression-era crime.

Bonnie and Clyde musical publicity shot
Joseph Massingale and Annie Miller as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker in the musical “Bonnie & Clyde” presented by Buck Creek Players.

After the opening tableau, we turn back to see a boy – young Clyde Barrow (Jordan Anness), a child of the West Dallas slums, become a career criminal at 12 and aspire to outshine the Roaring Twenties’ outlaws. We also meet a girl – young Bonnie Parker (Lauren Sciaudone), whose family’s hard times landed her and her mother in West Dallas, but she still plans to make it big one day in Hollywood.

These kids grow to be adults (Joseph Massingale and Annie Miller) in a world of dust and hard times – at one point our couple robs a bankrupt bank. Clyde is the only one who takes Bonnie’s dreams seriously, so they fall in love so deeply that even his stays in jail can’t keep them apart. As she joins him on his “jobs,” Bonnie gives up on the movies and aspires to fame in the pages of true-crime magazines and having her poetry published.

Meanwhile, Clyde’s brother, Buck (Levi Hoffman), gets in on the action with even his upstanding wife Blanche (Miranda Nehrig) drawn into the Barrow Gang. On the other side of the law, Deputy Ted Hinton (Jonathan Krouse), who had long been in love with Bonnie, joins in pursuit of the outlaws with Sheriff Smoot Schmid (James Hildreth) under the lead of Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kurt F. Clemenz).

The story presented neither demonizes nor glorifies the people involved, or their actions, but puts them in the context of their times and the contradictions that surrounded them – including the murderous thieves staying true to their families, going to meet them at the risk of their own safety. Some license is taken with the story, but it does stay surprisingly true to recorded events. A small video screen above the stage shows photos from the era, including mugshots, to underscore the truth of these scenes.

While rakishly handsome Massingale and charming beauty Miller excellently hold the center of the show in both voice and acting (and some resemblance to their real-life counterparts), supporting roles also shine. Nehrig’s Blanche telling Buck “You’re Going Back to Jail” is a wonderful highlight and an excellent example of the musical’s use of humor to balance the drama. Krouse gives us a heartbreaking glimpse of what Bonnie could have had in steadfast Ted. Molly Kraus is also noteworthy as Bonnie’s mother, Emma.

Director D. Scott Robinson’s passion for the show (which had a brief run on Broadway) is evident in the finished product.

Being a volunteer non-profit, BCP could “afford” to have the large enthusiastic cast and crew necessary to this musical, all “pros” in their own way. The effective yet elegantly simple stage set includes an exceptional replica of the front end of Clyde’s V-8 Ford, hand-built by set designer Aaron B. Bailey.

But the car’s fenders are clean and free of bullet holes. This is the story before that moment; a story of love and hard decisions in difficult times, the slow and steady progress of justice, and of running from the inevitable when the best you can hope for is to reach the end of the road together.

Find Buck Creek Playhouse at 11150 Southeast Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or see www.buckcreekplayers.com.

Korean War comedy at BCP

By John Lyle Belden

Though we might be familiar with the 1970s film or long-running television series, the stage play of “M*A*S*H” – and particularly the Buck Creek Players production, on stage through April 9 – stands apart.

Written by Tim Kelly and based on the original Richard Hooker novel, this live version features the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in Korea during the 1950-53 war, as well as some familiar characters, but don’t expect a reprise of the TV show.

Like the book and movie, the plot is mainly a series of scenes. The main story arcs concern the arrival and service of irreverent but excellent combat surgeons Captains Hawkeye Pierce (Ryan Powell) and Duke Forrest (Kurt F. Clemenz), as well as the fate of Korean youth Ho-Jon (Achiradeth “Boss” Teerasataporn). We also meet neurotic commander Col. Blake (Gregory Brinkers); incompetent stick-in-the-mud Maj. Burns (Ben Jones); Hawkeye and Duke’s fellow mischief-makers Captains Trapper John (Gergory Dunn), Ugly Black (Dave Hoffman) and suicidal dentist Walt Waldowski (George Chimples); new chief nurse Maj. “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Sue Kuehnhold) and the strong but easy-going nursing staff Lieutenants Fury (Abby White), Kimble (Michelle Papandria) and Phillips (Jennifer Berk); the cook always cooking up get-rich schemes, Sgt. Devine (Jamison Allen); and the supernaturally perceptive Cpl. Radar O’Reilly (Jim Banta).

Among the more fun scenes are those that involve getting Burns out of the unit for good; snapping Walt from a deep funk by staging his “death” and resurrection; and the arrival of three stranded female USO performers (Miranda Garrett, Rachel Riley and Kristen Baker).

Teerasataporn, a Thai exchange student, makes a great stage debut as Ho-Jon, the houseboy (and Hawkeye’s hijinks co-conspirator) in the officers’ tent known as “The Swamp.” After being drafted away by the South Korean Army, he is by dubious luck returned to the 4077th as a casualty. Then M.A.S.H. personnel, led by Hawkeye, raise money to help send Ho-Jon to the States to attend medical school.

Other performances are sharp as well; Powell relishes his role as mischief-maker.

Some aspects of the show are problematic: Given both the era portrayed and when the stories were written (and possibly few Asians available for audition) the native women are little more than giggling extras, uncomfortably close to stereotype. Also, it was an odd choice to have Jones also play neurosurgeon and football star “Spearchucker” Jones, typically cast (questionable name and all) with an African-American.

Nonetheless, this ambitious production nicely captures the spirit of the filmed versions, while giving us a fresh angle on the “Four Oh Double-Natural.” Find BCP at 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or visit buckcreekplayers.com.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.